/ Published November 13, 2020
American Spies: Espionage against the United States from the Cold War to the Present by Michael J. Sulick. Georgetown University Press, 2020, 370 pp.
On espionage and national intelligence, few individuals match Michael J. Sulick in experience or scholarship. Sulick had a vibrant career in the Central Intelligence Agency during his 28 years there. In his latest work, Sulick builds on his previous historical review of the topic, Spying in America: Espionage from the American Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War. As the subtitle of American Spies indicates, this work takes up the story of spying activity that damaged America from the Cold war to the present day.
In his introduction, Sulick asserts that there are six characteristics of espionage in America (p. 7). He showcases this framework from the beginning of the book to the conclusion. These characteristics range from motivations to the damage that American spies’ betrayal cost America’s national security. Sulick’s background as a literature professor helps him write an intriguing and detailed description of Americans who betrayed their country to another foreign power.
His work illustrates the American public's chronic illusion about espionage, taking us on a journey that begins with the stories of notorious Cold War spies. Sulick highlights the paradigm shifts at each significant change in American culture. The largest shift was the period between the 1950s to the 1960s with the rise of the cultural revolution in America. The movement from ideological recruitment, to monetary incentives, to virtue blackmail is an intriguing story for the American public. Additionally, it is enlightening for military members to read about the damage the US incurred from espionage that has led to the current requirement for the entire Defense Department to take computer-based training on insider threats.
Sulick claims that there is a historical precedent for America's lingering disbelief in the threats that espionage poses to America. In support of this assertion, he masterfully provides a historical review of the topic that leads to a better understanding of the implications and indicators of spy operations that have plagued the country. The book's tone is that of a stalwart patriot giving the American people hope that the federal government is doing everything within its power not to jeopardize civil liberties while fending off espionage attempts. He brilliantly delivers evidence for his claim for the duration of the Cold War into the 1990s as it pertains to the former USSR and Russia. However, while he discusses new age threats, they are not treated with the same depth.
The predominant focus in much of this work is Russia. Sulick presents an impressive chronology for any Russian foreign affairs scholar via case studies on espionage impacting the State Department's relationship with the former USSR and the newly formed Russian government in the 1990s. Sulick’s early work with the CIA centered primarily on Russia. However, his intimate knowledge of new threats lends to his credibility as a counterintelligence expert from 2000 to 2010. He does include several case studies about other countries that have conducted recruitment and espionage operations against the United States. Nevertheless, the amount of detail about Russian recruitment of American citizens working in agencies ranging from the DOD to the CIA and FBI overshadows his telling of any other foreign actors’ espionage efforts.
Outside of Russia, Sulick describes how countries such as East Germany, Cuba, China, and non-state actors conducted their espionage operations against the US. Although the stories of these spies are brief, they nonetheless illuminate the betrayal of the United States by other foreign entities. Additionally, Sulick uses a case of allied espionage to continue to explore the details and indicators of Americans lured into spying for a foreign power. The case of Johnathan Pollard dispels the illusion that espionage is exclusively limited to hostile nations (p. 165). In this narrative, Sulick conveys that not only American adversaries conduct clandestine operations against the United States.
The language that Sulick uses is crass at critical points and eloquent at others. This balance contributes to the assessment of backgrounds, conditions, and motives that led individuals to betray the United States. The book's analysis is not limited to the mundane indicators and motives that have become the narrative for espionage in America. Sulick vividly highlights the personal attributes and childhoods of these individuals that could have influenced their later machinations. Further, the time Sulick has spent in the CIA and academia gives him the expertise to dissect the mentality and perspective of intelligence and security professionals tracking down Americans who conducted espionage operations on behalf of a foreign nation.
Sulick’s recounting of notable espionage cases against the US in the last 80 years is an engaging read. His use of detail and colorful language allows the reader to become entranced by the stories and people. However, the book falls short of his overall claim and target audience. The target audience, according to Sulick, is the American public. The preferred audience for this book includes undergraduates in governmental studies, historians, and intelligence and security professionals. This book will resonate well with individuals having backgrounds in these fields. Sulick’s newest offering is highly praised by many and rightfully so, and the way he writes makes it a personal favorite.
Capt Adam Brown, USAF
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."